by Taylor Drake ’21
In the first week of Davidson’s 2019 fall semester, Lana Del Rey released her magnum opus Norman F*cking Rockwell to universal critical acclaim. Emerging at the cusp of summer and fall, the album embodied the angst of changing seasons. The “Summertime Sadness” of missed opportunities as the days slowly get shorter and cooler.
I’ve practically kept Lana’s record on loop since then. Norman Fucking Rockwell soundtracked my life—and I have Spotify receipts to prove it. Lana’s voice filled the background of long drives, late night conversations, hours in the library, and even workouts in the Union Gym.
2020 came, and its omnipresence in my life eventually led to a satiation. I still crooned along with Lana and bopped my head to the breakdown of “Venice B*tch”, but the emotional spell it cast on me slowly lost its power. Like any relationship (with an album), you transition beyond the exhilarating honeymoon phase and settle into more subtle, habitual forms of love. I didn’t play Norman F*cking Rockwell because I needed to hear it, but because I couldn’t think of anything else to play.
When we got the campus-wide email a little over a month ago cancelling the rest of the semester, I felt a seismic rupture separating time before the COVID-19 pandemic and now.
Beyond fearing what the future looked like, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss for how I imagined it. What brought me hope, stability, and security in the present were my seemingly concrete plans of another Nummit date, another party, another late night Dominoes order, another frolics.
After frantically packing up my stuff and hesitantly hugging my friends goodbye, I left Davidson not knowing when or if I would return.
After driving for a while listening solely to the hum of my car against the highway, I — out of habit — queued up Norman F*cking Rockwell. On this over-hundredth listen, I connected with the album more than any other listen before. Norman F*cking Rockwell felt repurposed for this new unprecedented time of isolation and uncertainty. I found new facets of relevance in something that felt so familiar.
Over the course of Norman F*cking Rockwell, Lana grieves a break-up of both personal and apocalyptic proportions. She reconciles with the fragments of her former relationships, her shattered vision of America under Trump, and the flames that threaten life as we know it on Earth.
For most of the album, Lana paints vignettes of herself alone, reminiscing about the only thing she’s guaranteed: her past. She’s suspended in this temporal stupor because of her exhaustion with the present and the uncertainty of her future. Lana only deals in absolutes of the past. On the record’s most relevant and cathartic track, “The Greatest,” Lana laments a lost era and her lost innocence. She sings, “Those nights were on fire / We couldn’t get higher/ We didn’t know that / we had it all / But nobody warns you before the fall.”
In “California,” Lana frantically imagines what she could do to make things “feel like they used to” before everything took a turn for the worse. She promises a lover that if he comes back to California, “We’ll do whatever you want, travel wherever how far / We’ll hit up all the old places / We’ll have a party, we’ll dance ’til dawn.” She expresses her innermost desires of social and emotional intimacy to ease the taxing turmoil of our current historical moment.
Beyond serving as a cathartic album for self-isolation, Norman F*cking Rockwell explores Lana’s complicated relationship with America that most progressives can resonate with. Lana emerged as the most prominent, mainstream anti-pop star under Obama’s presidency. While many progessive Americans felt hopeful about America’s future, Lana dove into American’s past to craft her image and sound. She deconstructed and reimagined the sonic and cultural landscapes of post-WWII America to fit the evermore realized vision of American exceptionalism during Obama’s tenure. While her former albums painted surrealist murals of American society, Norman F*cking Rockwell snapshots realist portraits of an artist speaking for an anxious generation.
In a time that feels even more tumultuous under Trump’s direction than a month ago, much less last fall, Norman F*cking Rockwell finds even more political and social relevance. Norman F*cking Rockwell speaks to American society’s perpetual gaslighting of our generation. It’s an album for those tired, defeated, and “fresh out of f*cks forever.” It’s an album for progressive youth who see their future dwindling in both outcomes of this election. It’s an album for college seniors missing their graduation to safeguard America’s public health while Trump supporters irresponsibly take to the streets to protest life-saving, scientifically supported stay at home orders.
Lana concludes her album with the sonically subtle but lyrically magnificent “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have, but I have it.” Hoping an emotionally inept partner will realize “half of the shit they put you through” and change or hoping a country that continues to drastically fail its people will come out of a plague with a humane political system is dangerous because it could only lead to more devastating disappointment. But for now, hope is all we have.